Horatio Alger lives on!

Have you every actually looked at the books written by Horatio Alger?  They’re hilarious!  They have titles like “Jerry the Backwoods Boy,” “From Farm to Fortune” and “From Canal Boy to President.”  Their common theme is boys from humble beginnings who achieve greatness, and what’s not to like about that?  According to sociologists, plenty.

As far as I can tell, one of the main purposes of Sociology is to convince people that there are things beyond individual effort that effect your successes in life.  Let me tell you, this a hard sell, even in Santa Cruz!  As a teaching assistant for Sociology 1, I saw that on an abstract level we could convince our students that things like your race and the income level of your parents impact how likely you are to go to college, earn a living wage and generally achieve the American Dream.  But when it came to analyzing how both individual effort and things beyond it impacted the life of a family member, forget it.  Most of the students were convinced that their grandfather/mother/uncle/godparent had succeeded in life entirely because of their own hard work.  Sociologists find this troubling not just because we are killjoys who want to diminish all of your cherished family stories, but because this belief often comes paired with its opposite, that people fallen on hard times must have failed entirely due to faults of their own.

All this is merely an introduction to the powerful chart that showed up in my inbox this week courtesy of the Sociological Images blog.  I’ll be using it next time I work as a teaching assistant for Sociology 1.

Here’s the fine print from the study:

  • About 62% of Americans think that “people get rewarded for their effort,” compared to about 35% of citizens in our national comparison group.
  • About 70% of Americans think that “people get rewarded for their intelligence and skills,” compared to about 40% of citizens in our national comparison group.
  • About 19% of Americans think that “coming from a wealthy family is essential/very important to getting ahead,” compared to about 29% of citizens in our national comparison group.
  • About 62% of Americans think that “differences in income in their country are too large,” compared to about 87% of citizens in our national comparison group.
  • And about 33% of Americans think that “it is the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income,” compared to about 69% of citizens in our national comparison group.

 

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